Sure, “Saving Our Grandchildren From Climate Change” Sounds Nice…

(Photo: Atmospheric Infrared Sounder)

(Photo: Atmospheric Infrared Sounder)


You want to know what the biggest obstacle to dealing with climate change is? Simple: time. It will take decades before the carbon dioxide we emit now begins to have its full effect on the planet’s climate. And by the same token, it will take decades before we are able to enjoy the positive climate effects of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions now. (Even if we could stop emitting all CO? today, there’s already future warming that’s been baked into the system, thanks to past emission.)

That is the lead of Bryan Walsh‘s excellent Time article called “Why We Don’t Care About Saving Our Grandchildren From Climate Change.” It covers much of the ground we covered in SuperFreakonomicsbut probably does a better job in laying out the inherent conflicts of climate change — long-term problem vs. short-term incentives — without enraging people.

Walsh writes about a paper that, in an experimental setting, asked research subjects to pool their investments to address climate change, with a variety of time horizons. There are all kinds of nits to pick with the experiment — it’s an experiment, for one — but it’s well worth pondering:

Unsurprisingly, the more delayed the payout was, the less likely the experimental groups would put enough money away to meet the goal to stop climate change. Even among those who knew they’d get the payout the next day, only seven of 10 groups invested sufficient funds, while none of the 11 groups who knew their endowment would be invested in planting trees gave enough money to “stop” climate change. While this is just one experiment, the results do not bode well for humanity’s ability to come together to stop climate change.

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  1. Jason says:

    This is nothing new. Our political system (and business system) is predicated on getting results now. Investment or mitigation with the future in mind is mostly forbidden.

    What’s ironic is that progressives argue that we need to “do something” about climate change (and they’re generally right on that), but then they continue to believe that the government can pile up insane amounts of debt and that that debt will not adversely affect future generations.

    We have fully embraced instant gratification. So much so that we are almost completely crippled from making long term decisions.

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    • James says:

      The curious thing is that there are so many actions, from CFL/LED lighting to fuel-efficient transport, that do deliver nearly instant gratification, yet people seem to be so emotionally attached to the old, bad ways of doing things. Makes me wonder how our ancestors ever convinced the public to trade in their tallow candles for whale-oil lamps.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        I hear that tallow candles smell bad, so switching from tallow to oil lamps would have provided an immediately better user experience. Fuel-efficient transport, by contrast, doesn’t have a better user experience: a car that gets 22 mpg is the same user experience as an otherwise identical car that gets 25 mpg.

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      • J1 says:

        It’s got nothing to do with emotional attachment. CFLs are expensive, take forever to come to full brightness, and don’t last any longer than incandescent bulbs. Far from offering instant gratification, they actually offer an experience inferior to the product they replace at much higher cost. LEDs are superior and will be big once the price comes down, but they’re still extremely expensive.

        Fuel efficient transport has a lot of potential if we can get away from mass transit where it’s not appropriate and focus on cars for the most part.

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      • James says:

        Not only do people cling to their old ways, they make up obviously false excuses for doing so.

        Take for instance that car example: assuming just for the sake of discussion that the two are otherwise absolutely identical, the 25 mpg one will cost ~14% less to fill up, which IMHO is a better user experience :-) Then there are situations where the cars are far from identical: the more fuel efficient one will typically be smaller, more nimble, and altogether much more fun to drive.

        Then CFLs. They don’t take anywhere close to “forever” to come to full brightness, the light is of better quality (or can be: sadly enough, the manufacturers often mimic the yellowish tone of incandescents), and I’m still using the ones I bought in the mid-90s. Sometimes I wish a few would burn out, so I’d have an excuse for replacing them with LEDs.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    I recently read a long diatribe regarding global warming in my local paper, and am left with the curious question:…just what the hell does anyone suggest we do about it? All minor actions like recycling or using renewable energy are simply trivial compared to the forces causing it.

    Reduce the population? Stop burning fossil fuels? March in a parade? Hold our breaths?

    Let’s start with YOU.

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    • Tarrou says:

      Here’s the crux, to make a big impact, we need fewer people. To get fewer people, we need more disease, shorter lifespans, wars, genocide, starvation and the like. So what do we as humans do? We form groups dedicated to reducing all these natural hindrances to human population, pour trillions upon trillions of dollars into them, then think we’re going to change the world’s climate with a tax? Silly people. One cannot be both a serious environmentalist and an ethical human.

      I look forward to Greenpeace’s new ad campaign: “Save the whales, let the brown people die!”

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  3. Lee Siu Hoi says:

    Wrong. Let’s start with ME.
    We have no natural children of our own, although we live in Hong Kong, the part of China that do not have “One Child Policy”.
    Do not complain about China’s “One Child Policy”. This is perhaps the biggest contribution of China to saving the planet.

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    • Eric says:

      Are you implying that the reason behind the “One Child Policy” is to “save the planet”? China is the biggest contributor (CO2-wise) to destroying the planet, “One Child” or not.

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      • JK4 says:

        They are not implying it’s the reason. They are stating that it is the contribution. The one child policy was introduced for reasons (so far as I am aware) totally unrelated to climate change. However, by reducing population growth, it is having an enormous environmental impact. It’s an unintended consequence, in this case a positive one.

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  4. caleb b says:

    I’m a government skeptic and I’m more worried the solution will be worse than problem.

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  5. steve cebalt says:

    Human nature; hard to see the payoff of current actions after I am dead. Self interest in the extreme, but it’s the norm. My town built a shiny new baseball stadium (the “old” one was 10 years old; I have socks older than that). But our city’s sewers are 120 years old, and our rivers and many homes are filled with feces (yes, sh*t) every time it rains. But the sewer system is a big, massive, astronomically costly problem. Easier to get the plebs excited with bread and circuses now. Worry about the inevitable sewer collapse when it is a true catastrophe.

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  6. J1 says:

    “the results do not bode well for humanity’s ability to come together to stop climate change”

    Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are themselves an attempt to change the climate.

    “it will take decades before we are able to enjoy the positive climate effects of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions now”

    How do you know the effects will be positive?

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  7. Megaera says:

    I’ve mostly switched over to CFLs. The one place I haven’t is in the lamp next to the chair where I sit to do my needlework. I have yet to find a non-incandescent bulb that both fits in the lamp and provides the kind and strength of light I need to see to do my needlework.

    IME, a CFL claiming to be as bright as a 100 watt incandescent is really only about the equivalent of a 40 watt. And I’ve had CFLs last me less than three years before blowing out.

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